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The chequered flag

CflagDscn1123We have just returned safely home from the South of France. Vittoria sang her way across one and two-thirds countries without mishap. The work of Auto Palace in Cannes (merci, messieurs) was as professional and thorough as it seemed at the time. All her computerised systems functioned flawlessly.

Our only problem on the two day journey was a slight run-in yesterday with the gendarmerie near Troyes. Even that reflected well on France. The officers, one male and one female, were well-dressed and polite. They did not lecture me in that infuriating parental way that British policemen have, but simply pointed out the (alleged) facts, namely that the speed limit on a French autoroute is 130 kph and that their equipment suggested I had been travelling at 147kph. I listened politely and decided it would be pas gentil to doubt the word of such courteous people in their own country.

Had I had €90 in cash, that would have been the end of the matter, but as we were on our way home and thought credit cards would cover all remaining expenses we were put to the slight inconvenience of following them - Vittoria technically under arrest - to the nearest ATM machine. This provided some harmless amusement to the local populace as a GB-badged Maserati followed slowly in the wake of  an humble police Renault with its blue light flashing.

I annoyed Mrs Paine by pointing out to the male policeman when we stopped at the ATM that he was committing an offence himself as his right brake light was not working. She thought me "cheeky." Perhaps it is as well that I couldn't recall the French word for "fine" (amende) as I had in mind to suggest he pay one. As it was, he thanked me for telling him and said it was tres gentil on my part. Fortunately, sarcasm doesn't flow well across language barriers. I thanked the officers (what for, exactly?) and wished them a happy holiday (15th August is a public holiday there) before setting off cheerfully. €90, 30 minutes' hassle and no points was quite a bargain by British standards. As I said to Mrs P. as we drove off, I only wish I had asked the tariff for doing 177mph as I could then have tested Vittoria's limits on public roads, if the price was reasonable.

We overnighted near Épernay and set off this morning after our last wonderful French breakfast for a while. Yesterday's weather had been difficult at times. We drove through the heaviest rain I have ever encountered, with visibility reduced to a few metres. The response of the drivers was superb. People adjusted to the conditions very sensibly, reducing their speeds and allowing much more distance between them. Even so, for the first time in 35 years' driving, I considered abandoning a journey. Today however the weather conditions in Northern France were perfect and we had a very pleasant drive to the Eurotunnel. The members of the French government may be just as power-crazed statists as our own, but they seem to run a much tighter ship. This was the peak holiday season in the world's most-visited country and the roads were high-quality and clear from bottom to top.

But then we reached England. This is the worst thing about a motoring holiday to France. On returning, one is immediately struck by the inferiority of the roads and the driving. Not to mention the stark contrast between the brutalist design of British transport infrastructure and the slender elegance of an autoroute swooping through France. With French food still in course of digestion, one is reluctant to spoil pleasant gastronomic memories by eating at a British motorway service station - so one drives hungrily on. On French motorways, the convention is to return to the inside lane immediately after overtaking and even to give way to faster traffic which indicates left while in the outside lane to indicate a desire to pass. On British motorways, every jerk with an old hatchback is a envy-driven policeman - hogging the outside lane at the speed limit and refusing to make way. Given the stupid rules about no overtaking on the inside (a perfectly legal manoeuvre in many countries) even on motorways of which half the surface is clear, one cannot proceed at pace. The concrete surface of the heavily used motorways around London makes for horrific tyre roar and infuriatingly signals by its cost-conscious harshness that the state cares more about its own property than yours. One is reminded by the absurdly frequent congestion of the eagerness with which the stupid Green theory that congestion would not be eased by road-building was adopted by successive governments with "better" things on which to spend our money than the public infrastructure we actually need.

Nonetheless, it was a great trip. Mrs P. and I have not holidayed alone together since our children were born. It was a delight (and in truth, rather a relief) to discover that we still enjoy each other's company as much as when we first met almost 35 years ago. And how kind it was of the gods of blogging to ensure that the only news stories worthy of comment in the last two weeks related to a topic which my self-imposed rules as a blogger who is a guest in Russia would anyway have precluded my writing about.

Our favourite moment? Oddly enough, though we visited wonderful places, and ate in establishments sporting many Michelin macarons between them, it was at a time when things were going wrong. We telephoned Maserati Assistance to get the address of the nearest service centre. The service (predictably in England) has been outsourced. After much kerfuffle we were connected to the RAC in England. After a pause to look for the number, the operator cheerfully said "Hiya, sir! I've googled it and there doesn't seem to be a Maserati dealer in the South of France." We looked out at the performance machinery hurtling by around us and laughed out loud. That voice, supremely confident in its ignorance, might as well - at that moment - have been from another planet. God help England and vive la France!

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